Kassa Tessema, Ethiopiques 29: Mastawesha, Buda Musique, CD 860257 (2014)
I havn’t heard very many of the discs in Buda Musique’s Ethiopiques series though I’m aware that the bulk of the music released in that series has tended to focus on popular jazz, soul, groove and other Western-derived genres that took root and flourished in Ethiopia over the past 60-plus years with an emphasis on the music from the 1950s to 1975. Occasionally the series will venture into lesser known home-grown genres and folk traditions in Ethiopia and Volume 29, focusing on singer Kassa Tessema (1927 – 1973), is one such outlier. This collection gathers up two albums’ worth of material Tessema recorded and released on vinyl: the first eight songs come off an album released in 1972 and the remaining five from an album made posthumously from tapes recorded privately and released in 1976. According to the sleeve notes that accompany this CD, these albums are the only recordings of Tessema’s ever to have been released on vinyl.
On all 13 songs that Tessema sings, he accompanies himself on the krar, a six-stringed triangular lyre, picking the strings note by note instead of strumming the instrument with a pick or plectrum to play chords. This technique of playing the krar, said in the CD sleeve notes to be dying out in Ethiopia, lends all the songs a mournful, introspective air as well as showcasing Tessema’s remarkable voice. The melancholy mood suits the subject matter of the songs, several of them being about love lost, separation from one’s love or the pain of being alone. Quite a few songs like “Fanno” and “Gelel” have a martial theme and sometimes listeners may wonder whether, when Tessema is singing about love and separation, he is referring to a real woman, a romanticised ideal of womanhood or even Ethiopia idealised as a woman. That Tessema comes across as loyal and patriotic almost to a fault is not surprising given his background: entering the Imperial Bodyguard of Emperor Haile Selassie at the age of 17 years, he remained there for the rest of his life and saw action in the Korean War in two tours of duty from June 1951 to April 1952 and from April 1953 to April 1954. No other musicians or instruments feature on the album: all you hear is Tessema and his krar.
If the songs from the 1972 album are minimal and sometimes quite strange to the Western ear, the later songs are different again: sung and performed in different keys, the tracks can have the feel of blues music. The emotion in Tessema’s singing can be quite intense and almost overwhelming. Although he still plays his krar by fingering, the notes almost run into one another, tremolo style. As the 1976 songs were recorded in a private setting, the quality of the recordings is not the best and the krar can sound a bit blunted. Even so, with what exists, the sound is rich and suggests that had Tessema not died prematurely, his style could have continued to develop into a powerful and highly evocative musical entity capable of an amazing range of emotional expression.
While there are no sing-along pieces here, Tessema more than amply compensates with his playing and his deeply sonorous voice that conveys a deep feeling and which commands respect no matter what he happens to be singing about. The little that survives of his work is to be treasured indeed.